Starlings + Saudades.

By: Jen Shoop

*Image via.

I sat with a Mary Oliver poem on starlings earlier this week:

“Chunky and noisy,
but with stars in their black feathers,
they spring from the telephone wire
and instantly
they are acrobats.”

A few couplets later:

“you simply can’t imagine
how they do it
with no articulated instruction, no pause,
only the silent confirmation
that they are this notable thing.”

Unlike most Oliver poetry, the speaker does not spectate in the woods, but “in the ashy city.” Even in a concrete jungle, her eye is drawn to the natural, and how it can mentor her. Interestingly — aptly — she is fixated on the commonplace starling, inspiration of the dandelion variety. “Ah, world, what lessons you prepare for us,” she writes. Then:

“I am thinking now
of grief, and of getting past it;
I feel my boots
trying to leave the ground,
I feel my heart
pumping hard. I want
to think again of dangerous and noble things.
I want to be light and frolicsome.
I want to be improbably beautiful and afraid of nothing,
as though I had wings.”

This is a poem of longing, a lament — not of people or places lost, exactly, but of the way grief and world-weariness can alienate us from the natural, instruction-less will to move freely and with joy. Often, Oliver draws us to a place of gentle edification in her poetry by encouraging us to lean into what feels right, what our truest selves incline us to do (“You only have to let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves”). Here, Oliver does not resolve the tension. We end in groping. We close our eyes on a will that is impotent, too over-burdened to lift itself. We remain in a state of saudade, a Portuguese word once cleverly described as “the untranslatable word for the presence of absence.”

It is dark in those last couplets; I prefer not to linger there myself. But I find it heroic of Oliver to write from a place of stagnation, and to do so with her characteristic limpidity. It is a start to observe the distance between here and there, to play Odysseus no matter the set of the sea, to name the absent and longed-for. In the case of “Starlings in Winter,” it is no small thing to observe that one is grounded when one’s spirit is meant for flight.


+One line has been giving me trouble, though: “I want / to think again of dangerous and noble things.” The word “dangerous” slips through my fingers like sand. Would love your thoughts on that word in particular.

+More Oliver wondrousness.

+Oliver seems always an arm’s length away in moments of loss.

+What pursuing English taught me.

+Do the humanities fundamentally cultivate a different kind of outlook than the sciences? This post and the comments on it really made me think.

Shopping Break.

+Chic slides. I owned a pair of mules from Birdies that I LOVED and totally wore into the ground. I give this brand an A+ for comfort.

+I mentioned this dress as almost a throwaway comment in a recent post, but had to re-share more prominently: it looks like La Ligne, but $30! And speaking of La Ligne, WHY did they need to come out with the Vivian in this spectacular blue and white stripe?! Also obsessing over their Frannie dress in blue and white! My kind of summer sun dress.

+Also, I still wear this mini Marina sweater from La Ligne at least once a week. I love the 90s rollneck and the length is perfect for a kind of half-tuck into high-waisted denim.

+Speaking of blue and white: love this classic skirted ottomans.

+Cute favors to hand out at Easter dinner.

+Handsome office chair, under $250.

+These toddler Target sneaks have a New Balance / Veja vibe, but a $20 price tag.

+Currently in my cart for my son: these baseball pajamas.

+This popular lip product was just restocked.

+Love this sherpa ottoman for a closet / dressing area.

+Obsessed with this skirt from Loeffler Randall.

+The engraveable silhouette necklaces are the perfect Mother’s Day gift. So, so sweet.

+This bag reminds me of the ones from Dior.

+Pam Munson just released a gorgeous pareo in the botanical patchwork print my friend Inslee designed!

+This $50 dress reminds me of a midi-length version of my Mille dress!

+Love this sweet side table for a child’s room.

+My husband is absolutely evangelical about this antiperspirant/deodorant from Kiehl’s. Like, it was sold out for MONTHS and he was checking frantically for restocks everywhere. It is completely unscented but works insanely well, he tells me. Just a note in case your man is on the hunt! 25% off right now!

+Johanna Ortiz-inspired for $75.

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4 thoughts on “Starlings + Saudades.

  1. I love this poem.
    As I read it, ‘dangerous and noble things’ is a succinct way to describe things outside of the ordinary and mundane whether they be lofty or reckless. I love the way that poetry give us finite words and infinite possibilities for interpretation. Very thought provoking, but that’s what it says to me.

    1. I love this gloss — thank you. That read makes sense to me, especially when I think about the bird imagery from earlier. There is something about the birds flying “acrobatically” through the air that is, slightly, dangerous — so just choosing to move freely / electing for joy / moving wildly through life is in itself a kind of dangerous act.

      Thanks for the reading!


  2. That poem really resonates with me. Dangerous things! She is ready to join the dance again. It’s always dangerous to leap back into life when you have been cacooned in grief. Making a decision to put yourself back into the messy jumble that life entails and say, “I’m back” can seem like a dangerous thing. Your back in the land of vulnerability, hurt feelings, Mistakes are made. But it is also the place of connection, love and passion.

    1. Oo I love this reading, too — “ready to join the dance again.” You’re back in the arena, back to being vulnerable and exposed and prone to injury. Thank you.

      I love this poem, too. She is just a magician with imagery and language — and it all feels so easy.


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